On the one hand, the job is done.
After losing its opening round match against Sweden 3–0, the best result the United States women’s national team could hope for out of the group stage—barring an unlikely upset—was to assure its place in the knockout rounds by finishing second in its group. Its drab draw against an underpowered Australia managed that on Tuesday. The team survived and advanced. A new tournament starts Friday, when the U.S. takes on the Netherlands in an Olympic quarterfinal.
Yet I come to bury the USWNT, not to praise them. For 180 of its 270 Olympic minutes, the team has looked lackluster and lethargic, unwilling or unable to seize the initiative against opponents Sweden and Australia. Even its 6–1 demolition of New Zealand flattered to deceive, the sort of game that despite the scoreline gets appended with: “… but they’ll have to do better against more talented opposition.”
They did not. In the final game of the group stage, Australia had approximately twice the possession time and generated more shots on target than the U.S. Alex Morgan had a goal called back for a narrow offside, and other than that the U.S. barely threatened. Neither team even tried to score for the final 15 or so minutes; the Simpsons gag of teams passing aimlessly back and forth ad infinitum filled Twitter and was maybe still more interesting than the actual play on the field. This was all brakes, no gas soccer.
“The one thing that surprised me a little bit was that they were a bit passive in their pressing, and I’m used to seeing them very, very aggressive,” Australia coach Tony Gustavsson told the press after the game. Which suited Australia just fine. The forgiving format of the tournament—in which eight of 12 teams from three groups advance—meant that as long as Group B’s heavily favored Netherlands and Brazil teams didn’t lose big to China and Zambia, respectively, then a draw would be enough for Australia to go through, where it will face Great Britain in the quarters.
Anyone who has watched America’s first three games knows that this particular version of the U.S. women is not going to win a medal at the Tokyo Olympics. Play like it has been against the Netherlands on Friday, a rematch of the 2019 World Cup final, and the score line could be so lopsided that the fanbase will end up fondly reminiscing about the halcyon days of losing 3–0 to Sweden. The Netherlands scored 21 goals in the group stages, pouring in 10 against Zambia and 8 against China and battling Brazil to a 3–3 draw. Forward Vivianne Miedema, maybe the world’s best player, has scored eight goals in three games, which works out to one for every 22 minutes that she’s been on the field.
Should the U.S. somehow advance, one of longtime rivals Canada and Brazil will be waiting in the semifinals. Make it to the final, and the USWNT will likely be faced with a rematch against Sweden or a match against Great Britain. All of these teams will look at the games against Sweden and Australia and smell blood in the water.
The question now for coach Vlatko Andonovski is whether there is a version of his team contained within the roster he brought to the Olympics that might stand a better chance in the knockout rounds. So far under his two-year, COVID-constrained tenure, there’s been little need for or sense of what Andonovski’s Plan B might be. The U.S. had thrived before the Olympics with a 4-3-3 setup, a formation similar to the one it used to win the 2019 World Cup under Andonovski’s predecessor, coach Jill Ellis. That squad featured the same rotation of players filling roughly the same roles as the one in Tokyo. Before the Sweden game, the U.S. hadn’t lost in more than two years under both Ellis and Andonovski—44 consecutive matches, unbeaten. It wasn’t broken; why fix it?
Now that its engine has burst into flames while it was going 70 miles per hour down the interstate, it’s apparent that during that streak, the team may have been neglecting some preventive maintenance along the way. Is it too late to figure out why powerhouse all-rounders Sam Mewis and Lindsey Horan have both looked so ineffectual this tournament? Or how to tweak the offense so that its forwards aren’t running themselves into blind alleys quite so often? If the players don’t have the energy to win the ball back upfield in the heat and humidity of the Japanese summer, then is there a version of the team that can sit back and play more on the counter? What would that look like?
The team tried something like it against Australia, where, content with a draw, it spent much of the game sitting deep in its own half trying to draw the Australians forward. The added benefit of this was that it eased the burden on the Americans’ legs in the compressed Olympic tournament, though if that was so necessary then there were additional opportunities for squad rotation that Andonovski could have taken advantage of.
But the USWNT looked uncomfortable in this posture and rarely found the urgency to be dangerous on the counter. The team’s roster, with half its players aged 30 or older (and only two younger than 26) is built to overpower teams through control and constant offensive pressure—but it has lacked the energy and precision required to make that work in Japan. It’s tough to point fingers at the grind of the tournament when the U.S. has looked ground down from the very first game.
It would not be like the USWNT to go gentle into that good night. But to what extent will Andonovski prove willing to tweak, especially with that veteran core used to doing things their way? When was the last time the U.S. practiced being anything but the hammer? Will the manager replace one or two pieces, or will he smush them all into a big Play-Doh ball and start from scratch? He could change the formation, change everyone’s roles, and reach out past the end of his usual rotation to give more time to the likes of forward Lynn Williams or 21-year-old Catarina Macario, a precocious talent who’s likely the future of the USWNT but has played just six minutes in the Olympics. He could unleash Crystal Dunn, once the NWSL’s top scorer as a forward but mostly a left back for her country, on the other end of the pitch. Most of the subs he might make are more about tweaking the balance than upending the status quo.
If Andonovski still trusts that status quo—if he thinks his team can find the switch and flip it before the game against the Netherlands—then he must be privy to some information the viewers at home don’t have. If his secondary objective during the group stage was to lull the team’s opponents into a false sense of security, then mission accomplished. But if not, then the job for the U.S. women will likely be done Friday, when their Olympic journey—and possibly their reign as the world’s superpower—will end in defeat.